It will take us a while to get somewhere better.
A focus on quality will take us somewhere different from a focus on quantity.
There are dozens of congregations in United Methodism who know this (though dozens out of tens of thousands is pretty depressing…)
What makes these congregations unique is that they operate from a few basic assumptions:
- things of lasting value are never cheap or easy to obtain/create
- God expects the best from us, not whatever we’re willing to give when convenient
- no one can improve without a signficant investment of time and effort
- spiritual formation is a lifelong pursuit of intentional learning and practice
In the past week I have been accused repeatedly of trying to make rare exceptions — highly committed Christian communities of faith — into a gold standard. I have been told that I cannot expect an “average” congregation to commit to the rigors and requirements of Christian discipleship. Additionally, it is unfair for me to make it sound like this is what Jesus expects of us by quoting selected scriptures. I have been told that I am naive, irrational and unreasonable, and that simply because a handful of churches are doing it doesn’t mean others should aspire to do so as well. Baloney (or bologna, if you prefer).
In literature and poetry there is a concept – synecdoche – where an example or a figure of speech is used to represent a totality. For example, to use the phrase “communion of saints” to represent all Christians who have died or the current efforts of some church growth pundits to use “disciples” as a term meaning worship attenders. I often talk about “the church” as if it is one single thing, and my definition of “vital congregations” is representative to my research, but is light-years away from today’s United Methodist Church leadership’s.
The benefit of a good and true synecdoche is that it is an accurate generalization when the example does represent the universal. It leads to a clarity and a shared understanding. When I lift up deeply committed, healthy congregations as “vital” I am seriously lifting up a synecdoche — what these churches are, any church can become — given four things:
- desire — our churches are not in decline because they can’t be better; they are in decline because they don’t care enough to be better
- time — if it takes a church decades to get to a bad place, it will take more than a few months to get to a good place
- appropriate metrics — lt me say again that counting people who show up indicates nothing about health, value or impact. A 5% increase in attendance in no way means you are doing better ministry. A 5% increase in the number of people using their gifts in the world or a 50% increase in the number of people served in the community are a step in the right direction. Qualitative metrics that indicate the ways people are maturing in their Christian vocation are really on track.
- visionary leadership — pastors, laity leaders, and denominational servants who get it — who care about the integrity of our Christian witness and support faithfulness over attendance and church budgets.
There is nothing here hard to comprehend, and nothing beyond the capacity and grasp of any existing congregation. Certainly, many churches won’t want to do these things, but none CAN’T do these things. Same goes for any individual in our congregations. Those who want to, do; those who could care less, don’t. We don’t need to make this seem more difficult that it really is.
Let the conversation continue. I notice a very interesting phenomenon this week. The majority of readers who agree with me are posting their comments directly on the blog. The majority of people who disagree with me and think I am way off base are emailing me directly. Why is this? I encourage everyone to have the conversation on the blog. It doesn’t bother me at all when people disagree with my points, but I think this is a very healthy and important discussion to be having. Our constant focus on numbers will continue to kill us; but a meaningful shift to qualitative metrics could transform us. It has happened in enough individual congregations to illustrate the process for the whole.